Catholic Schools Are Called to Form a Culture of LGBTQ Participation

Matt Tedeschi

To mark Catholic Schools Week in the U.S., today’s post is from guest blogger Matt Tedeschi. Matt received his M.A. in biblical studies from Yale Divinity School. He taught religious studies at Saint Ignatius College Prep in Chicago before being terminated over his sexual orientation (read more here and here). He now works at an an employment law firm in Chicago.

Catholic institutions, often schools, have been involved in labor disputes, including firings, with over 100 employees in the last thirteen years because of LGBTQ issues. Church teaching or a morals clause in an employment contract is usually offered as a rationale. When LGBTQ employees are terminated, they are often told they are “not a good fit” for a school, even after years of dedicated service.

Catholic leaders need to move beyond using doctrine as a cover for bigotry and imagine new ways that our tradition might inspire schools to treat LGBTQ members with dignity. The principle of “participation” from Catholic social teaching can be particularly helpful, and Catholic Schools Week provides an appropriate time to reflect on it.

“Participation” refers to our obligation—and right—to play an active role in our various communities, from family and church, or work and school, to the political sphere. It recognizes that every person occupies a unique place in a web of human relationships and that we all deserve to be involved in critical decisions about our lives.

Participation in Catholic schools can perhaps be best achieved by authentically modeling Jesus of Nazareth, who inverted dominant models of power relations. Numerous analyses (e.g., see here, here, and here) have demonstrated that the concentration of power and its perverted misuse have been at the root of institutionalized Church abuses. But workplaces can ensure safe working environments by welcoming employees to participate in power-sharing, thereby minimizing opportunities for abuse and making workers feel valued.

The first, most basic step toward participation is ending exclusion. Catholic schools should institute non-discrimination policies covering sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status for employees. They can also establish parental leave policies that are gender-neutral, ensuring all families can partake in the school’s employment benefits. And instead of excluding or merely tolerating LGBTQ employees, administrators should ensure that diversity and inclusion initiatives at the school incorporate LGBTQ employees.

Participation in the workplace means asking employees for feedback on their work environment and what they would like to see changed. LGBTQ workers may fear sharing their views with supervisors, but employers can reduce this anxiety by conducting anonymous climate surveys. These surveys permit employees to honestly share their workplace concerns and joys and are easily administered online. As a result, the institution gains data it can use to improve itself, while workers feel more invested in their jobs.

Genuine participation at work also demands meaningful involvement in critical decision-making. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes called for empowering employees to play an active role in managing their workplaces (§ 68). Recognizing that teachers and staff bring institutional memory, insightful counsel, and valuable skills to the table, administrators should welcome them into discussions about business strategy, mission, compensation, and diversity and inclusion. After all, there are no better advisors than the teachers and staff themselves when it comes to making a workplace more inclusive and ensuring its mission is effectively continued.

In addition to management, workers can also collaborate with the school board. Catholic school board members are sometimes appointed for their affluence and social standing, and may have little insight into the practical realities of teaching in a classroom or ministering to students. Catholic schools can demonstrate their commitment to power-sharing with employees by allocating seats for them on the board and encouraging thoughtful and committed workers to join it.

This kind of enhanced worker power is not only good for workers, it’s good for the employer. In their pastoral letter Economic Justice for All, the U.S. bishops recognized that “granting employees greater participation in determining the conditions of work…can enhance productivity…provide greater job security and work satisfaction for employees, and reduce adversarial relations” (§ 300).

Increasing employees’ meaningful participation in the workplace will empower all workers, thereby allowing the voices of LGBTQ teachers and staff to be more easily heard. In turn, school staff will be better positioned to respond to the LGBTQ students they serve.

Catholic Schools Week should call our attention to the troubling pattern of viewing LGBTQ employees as “not a good fit” for Catholic schools. If Catholic schools thoughtfully relied on the principle of participation, not only would LGBTQ workers be more secure, but their schools would more authentically embody their own missions and Catholic teaching.

Matt Tedeschi, February 2, 2020

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